Utah gymnastics: After long drought, Utes thirsty for title
Duluth, Ga. • There is no bigger symbol of consistent athletic success at the University of Utah than its gymnastics team.
The seventh-seeded Utes, who are gunning for a top three finish here Friday in the preliminary round of the NCAA Championships, are trendsetters not only in gymnastics but also in women's college sports in general.
• Utah has won 10 national titles, a level of success matched only by Georgia.
• The Utes are the only gymnastics team in the nation that has qualified for 31 NCAA Championships in a row.
• In this decade alone, the Utes have placed second four times (2000, 2006, 2007, 2008) and third twice (2005 and 2009) at nationals. It's a level of success most programs only dream of achieving.
• Utah has one of the most loyal fan followings in any NCAA sport, averaging crowds in excess of 11,000 since 1992 and leading all women's sports in attendance in 2010 and 2011.
However, every coin has another side. And for the Utes it is this: For all their tradition, all their achievements and all the support in the stands, they haven't won a national gymnastics championship since 1995.
In that sense, the championship banners that hang in the team's practice facility are not only symbols of athletic prosperity, but also reminders that it has been a long time a really long time since the Utes have stood atop the podium.
Have the Utes lost their edge? Has the sport passed them by? Are they being outrecruited for the top gymnasts? Do co-coaches Greg and Megan Marsden still have the know-how to win the big one? Does Utah still have the fire?
Dwight Normile, the editor of International Gymnast, one of the leading gymnastics publications in the country, doesn't see a drop-off. To him, Greg Marsden seems as passionate as ever about the sport. He points to the itty-bitty margins between wins and losses in the sport as the primary culprit in Utah's drought.
"With the 10.0 scoring system, it is very difficult to separate yourself from the pack," Normile said. "So just one or two minor errors can mean the difference. That Utah makes it to the NCAAs every year is a testament to its excellence as a program."
Stephanie McAllister, a senior on the team that held the No. 1 ranking for three weeks this year, says there is no lack of fire or confidence in the team. They fully expect to qualify for Saturday's Super Six (the top three teams from Friday's two sessions advance) and take a shot at the title.
"We can compete with anybody," she said. "We just have to focus on ourselves, have fun and do the best we can."
Such efforts haven't been good enough to bring home championships in recent years. However, observers inside and outside the program believe the Utes are still a force to be reckoned with.
Utah pushed mighty UCLA to the edge in the regular season, scored wins over Top 10 programs such as Stanford, Oregon State and Nebraska and finished second in its first-ever Pac-12 Championships, to the Bruins. No other team at Utah has come close to that level of success in the school's first year in the new conference.
Even without a win this weekend, it has been a good season, said Greg Marsden. To satisfy him, the Utes need to perform well, not necessarily win.
"We do the best we can," he said. "As long as we do what we are capable of, I am happy. Last year was an immensely satisfying season for us, and we finished fifth. As long as we don't have falls and I feel we've done what we can as a team, I am happy."
Fans echo those sentiments, even if they've had to sit in the stands and watch other teams celebrate.
"Even in down years, they find a way to get to nationals and typically upset the higher-ranked teams to make the Super Six," said Ute supporter Scott Monson. "This year the skill level of the Utah routines is as good as any in the country. Of course I'm anxious for the Utes to win another title, but there is nothing disappointing about the Utes' consistent Top Six performances."
There have been few times Marsden felt the Utes didn't accomplish that goal. The last time that happened was at the 2008 championships, won by the host team, Georgia.
That night, the Utes didn't get the scores they felt they should have, while Georgia, rooted on by its home crowd, did. Then again, Marsden notes that the Utes' last championship, in 1995, was one he didn't expect.
"We were in a spot where we had to have three teams ahead of us self-destruct, and we sat there and watched one team after another do that," he said. "I've been around enough to see all sides of it."
Many observers say the primary reason national titles are more elusive now is the parity in gymnastics. Even some of the sport's giants including UCLA and Georgia have failed to qualify for nationals as other teams have emerged. The Utes, by contrast, have never missed the event altogether.
"By no means have they fallen off the map, it's just hard," said former Utah gymnast Katie Kavisto. "Second place by tenths of a point has happened a fair amount if I'm remembering correctly, and that's at the top of the top."
In a sense, the Utes have been victims of their own success. When Marsden first got into the sport, few teams had programs, so winning titles was easier. He helped promote and build the sport, and other top programs sprung up in places such as Georgia, Alabama, UCLA and elsewhere. They lured away some of the top talent and won championships of their own.
That the Utes have been able to maintain their level of success is a point of pride, not frustration, said former Ute All-American and Olympian Melissa Marlowe.
"Many schools have a more glamorous draw, like the idea of being in Hollywood, or in the Florida sun," Marlowe said. "The increase in collegiate success has lured some of the most talented private club coaches into the college ranks, increasing the competitiveness 100-fold. In my era, there were maybe five or six coaches in the college ranks who I would have considered amazing."
This year, with Georgia seeded fifth, Florida, UCLA and Oklahoma are the favorites in a field most coaches believe is stronger than ever.
"You can never take qualifying for granted," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson. "This is the type of championship no one can make a mistake one through 12 are all strong."
But as much as the coaches love to talk about parity, the fact is that the only four teams that have ever won the national title are Utah, UCLA, Georgia and Alabama.
Georgia, the program located just 50 miles from Duluth, has proven the biggest obstacle for the Utes.
The Utes finished second to Georgia three years in a row beginning in 2006, part of a 10-year period in which the Gym Dogs won five of their titles.
What allowed Georgia to excel so much at the expense of the Utes?
Former Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan acknowledged the Gym Dogs had not only top talent, but also leadership and a hunger that drove the team.
"We had all the ingredients," she said. "Two of the championships 2007 and 2008 we had injuries, and that adversity pushed us to be better."
The Utes acknowledge they haven't had that kind of chemistry in recent seasons but believe they have it this year.
"This year we've been good about helping each other and supporting each other," McAllister said.
Perhaps that little bit of cohesiveness will help the Utes stick their landings, stick floor passes and ultimately stick it to the competition. And perhaps, they'll be able to stick another banner in that practice gym on the hill.
Friday-Sunday, at Duluth, Ga.
(Seeds based on National Qualifying Score, which is the regional qualifying score combined with the regional meet score)
Group 1: 1. Florida 394.77, 4. Alabama 394.27, 5. Georgia 394.095, 8. Arkansas 393.37, 9. Oregon State 393.21, 12. Ohio State 392.47
Group 2: 2. UCLA 394.495, 3. Oklahoma 394.385, 6. Nebraska 393.555, 7. Utah 393.53, 10. Stanford 393.085, 11. LSU 392.645
Note: Top three teams from each session will advance to the Super Six.